“Am I the conscience of a generation or just some old fool ringing and trying to escape America’s dominant materialistic miserly conscience?” he asked in “Little Boy”, a conscience novel published around the time of his 100th birthday.
He made history. Thanks to the City Lights publishing arm, books by Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and many others came out and the release of Allen Ginsberg’s landmark poem “Howl” led to an obscenity affair in 1957. which opened new horizons for freedom of expression.
He also defied history. The internet, supermarket chains, and high rents shut down many booksellers in the Bay Area and beyond, but City Lights remained a thriving political and cultural outlet, where a section was devoted to books enabling a “revolutionary skill.” Where employees could spend the day. to attend an anti-war demonstration.
“In general, people seem to get more conservative as they get older, but in my case, I seem to have become more radical,” Ferlinghetti told Interview magazine in 2013. “Poetry must be able to meet the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if that means looking apocalyptic. “
The store even lasted during the coronavirus outbreak, when it was forced to close and required $ 300,000 to stay in business. A GoFundMe campaign quickly raised $ 400,000.
Ferlinghetti, tall and bearded, with piercing blue eyes, could be gentle, even introverted and reluctant in unfamiliar situations. But he was the most public poet and his work was not intended for solitary contemplation. It was meant to be recited or sung aloud, whether in cafes, bookstores, or at gatherings on campus.
This 1958 compilation, “A Coney Island of the Mind,” has sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the United States alone. Long a stranger to the poetry community, Ferlinghetti once joked that he had “committed the sin of too much clarity.” He called his style “wide open” and his work, influenced in part by ee cummings, was often lyrical and childish: “The peacocks were walking / under the trees of the night / in the lost moon / the light / when I went out. / seeking love, ”he wrote in“ Coney Island ”.
Ferlinghetti was also a playwright, novelist, translator, and painter, and had many admirers among musicians. In 1976, he recited “The Lord’s Prayer” during the group’s farewell concert, immortalized in “The Last Waltz” by Martin Scorsese. The Aztec folk-rock group Two-Step got their name from a line of the title poem in Ferlinghetti’s book “Coney Island”: “A couple of papish cats / makes an Aztec in two steps.” Ferlinghetti also published some of the early reviews of Pauline Kael films, who along with The New Yorker became one of the most influential critics in the country.
He lived long and well despite a traumatic childhood. His father died five months before Lawrence was born in Yonkers, New York, in 1919, leaving behind a sense of loss that haunted him, but provided much of the creative tension that animated his art. Her mother, unable to cope, suffered a nervous breakdown two years after her father died. She eventually disappeared and died in a public hospital.
Ferlinghetti spent years moving among parents, boarding houses and an orphanage before being taken in by a wealthy New York family, the Bislands, for whom his mother had worked as a housekeeper. He studied journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, received a master’s degree in literature from Columbia University and a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris. His early influences include Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and Ezra Pound.
Ferlinghetti hated war because he was. In 1945 he was a naval commander stationed in Japan and recalled his visit to Nagasaki weeks after the United States dropped an atomic bomb. The carnage, he recalls, made him an “instant pacifist.”
In the early 1950s, he moved to San Francisco and married Selden Kirby-Smith, from whom he divorced in 1976. (They had two children). Ferlinghetti also became a member of the city’s burgeoning literary movement, the so-called San Francisco Renaissance, and quickly helped establish a gathering place. Peter D, Martin, sociologist, had opened a pocket store in the North Beach section of town and named it after a recent Charlie Chaplin film, “City Lights.” When Ferlinghetti saw the storefront in 1953, he suggested that he and Martin become partners. Each contributed $ 500.
Ferlinghetti later told the New York Times: “City Lights has become pretty much the only place you can walk in, sit and read books without being hassled to buy something.”
The Beats, which first met in New York in the 1940s, now had a new base. One of the projects was City Lights’ Pocket Poets series, which featured low-cost editions of worms, including Ginsberg’s “Howl”. Ferlinghetti had heard Ginsberg read a version in 1955 and wrote to him: “I salute you at the start of a great career. When will I receive the manuscript? A humorous interpretation of the message Ralph Waldo Emerson sent to Walt Whitman after reading “Leaves of Grass.”
Ferlinghetti published “Howl and Other Poems” in 1956, but customs officers seized copies of the book that were being shipped from London, and Ferlinghetti was arrested for obscenity. After a high-profile court battle, a judge in 1957 ruled that “Howl” was not obscene, despite its sexual themes, citing the poem’s relevance as a critique of modern society. A 2010 film on the case, “Howl,” starred James Franco as Ginsberg and Andrew Rogers as Ferlinghetti.
Ferlinghetti will also publish Kerouac’s “Book of Dreams”, Timothy Leary’s Prison Writings and Frank O’Hara’s “Lunch Poems”. Ferlinghetti risked jail time for “Howl” but rejected Burrough’s classic “Naked Lunch” fearing the publication would lead to “premeditated legal madness.”
Ferlinghetti’s eyesight had been poor in recent years, but he continued to write and keep regular hours at City Lights. The establishment, meanwhile, warmed him, even if the affection had not always returned. He was named the first San Francisco Poet Laureate in 1998, and City Lights achieved landmark status three years later. He received an honorary award from the National Book Critics Circle in 2000 and five years later received a National Book Award medal for “his tireless work on behalf of poets and the entire literary community.”
“The dominant American business culture can globalize the world, but it is not the dominant culture of our civilization,” Ferlinghetti said of receiving the award. “The real mainstream is not oil, but literary people, publishers, bookstores, publishers, libraries, writers and readers, universities and all the institutions that support them. “
In 2012, Ferlinghetti won the Janus Pannonius International Poetry Prize from the Hungarian club PEN. When he learned that the country’s right-wing government was a sponsor, he turned down the award.